A Few Books by Charles Dickens

Stack of books by Charles DickensMy literary book club did Dickens last week, focusing on A Christmas Carol. I was glad I wasn’t the only one who felt compelled, when I read it, to read it aloud, or at least aloud in my head. Like Shakespeare’s, Dickens’ words feel so good on the tongue.

Cover of A Christmas Carol by Charles DickensMy edition of A Christmas Carol is a 2009 printing by Sandy Creek (NY). It evokes the 1843 original with its red cover and gold trim, albeit printed on glossy stock. Historical trivia: the endpapers on this modern edition are green – the endpapers on the publisher’s first printing, which Dickens rejected, were green. (When A Christmas Carol first hit the market, it had yellow endpapers.) The pages have a ragged edge, mimicking the hand-cut pages of old books (cf. the books in Jay Gatsby’s library: “He knew when to stop too – didn’t cut the pages!”). The Arthur Rackham illustrations aren’t the originals by John Leech, but they definitely capture the spirit (ha) of the story, and Rackham was a top illustrator of late Victorian/early Edwardian era children’s books.Arthur Rackham illustrations in A Christmas Carol

A Tale of Two Cities is worth a re-read. This is not the book I read and annotated in high school. I lent that copy to one of my kids years ago for school and who knows what’s become of it? Skimming this edition, it all seems so unfamiliar because nothing’s where I remember it. Do you remember plot points and even text passages by their approximate depth in the book and position on the page? I do, but I can’t with a different edition, so reading this will be like a whole new book to me.

Cover of Great Expectations by Charles DickensI loved Great Expectations when I first read it years ago, and I frequently dip back into it to re-read sections. This particular hardcover is from the Oxford Library of the World’s Great Books, and it reprints book edition illustrations by F.W. Pailthrope, including several full color inserts. I think my favorite character may be Joe Gargery, the kind-hearted blacksmith who is to Pip both a gentle father figure and a nurturing friend. I also enjoy re-reading, about half-way through the book, Pip’s description of everyday life at Barnard’s Inn, where he and his friend rack up gentlemanly debts and try, with no success at all, to bring order to their affairs. I feel that way at times, which probably shows in my preferred sad books to read, which I’ll get to in a minute.Interior of Great Expectations with illustration by F.W. Pailthrope

On the other hand, I grew impatient with The Pickwick Papers. It was like following a fun travel blog about a small group of friends that suddenly becomes all serious and legalistic. For me, that sucked out the joy, so I never finished it.

Many of the people in the group had also read The Old Curiosity Shop, which may go on my list for when I want a depressing read. I’m not sure it’s my thing, though. I’m more of a Great Expectations person, with its rise and fall of fortune, than a Curiosity Shop person, with its death of little Nell. My go-tos for depressing books are Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, and J.B. Priestley’s Angel Pavement.

It’s interesting that four of the five feature a loss of wealth and social position. Given that I’m in the middle of walking away from a formerly lucrative career toward uncertainty and a sort of ethical high ground, these books resonate deeply with me. But, unlike Lily Bart or Michael Henchard, I intend to survive. Pip-like, I will reinvent myself and move forward in hope.

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